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Glamour, Excess and Commodification: The Female Body in 1950s Britain

Research Seminar – Lynda Nead

  • 26 May 2021
  • 6:00 – 7:30 pm
  • This series of Research Seminars will be delivered by our Senior Fellows who were awarded in 2019 to talk on the research they have conducted as part of their fellowship.

This presentation considers the distinctive blonde bombshell body of the 1950s; curvaceous and opulent, almost baroque. This body seems the perfect corporeal expression of the emerging affluence and last-ditch military and imperial defiance of Britain in this period. It is the visual culmination of the migration of a U.S., Hollywood-style glamour to Britain. Glamour and sexualised femininity were part of a larger passage of commodities across the Atlantic in this period, but in the process something important happens: Blonde becomes British; Marilyn Monroe becomes Diana Dors, the pin-up girl of the Suez Crisis.

The vulgar excess of the 1950s bombshell body troubled and interfered with a deep-seated myth of British restraint and subtlety. It was, quite simply, too much, beyond containment, and in the end, it came down to a question of scale, or, more accurately, a loss of scale. The expansive female bodies of the 1950s demanded something more than existing flatscreen cinema technologies and these years saw an explosion of cinema-specific technological innovations such as CinemaScope, Cinerama, 3-D, stereoscopic sound and Technicolor.

Drawing on a range of visual culture including photography, film, cartoons and fine art, the paper will explore the many meanings of the female body in 1950s Britain.


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Image caption: Diana Dors in Picture Post, 1956. Digital image courtesy of IPC Magazines / Picture Post

About the speaker

  • Head shot of Lynda Nead

    Lynda Nead is Pevsner Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on the history of visual culture; her books include: Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); and The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2017). She is a Trustee of the V&A, and a member of the Museum of London Academic Panel and the National Gallery Modern and Contemporary Advisory Panel.